While the world is in chaos, signs of spring in the northern hemisphere provides some comfort. The sun warms up the days, and after the last cold spell and winter storm, the nights are warmer as well. Daffodils are out and some trees are unfolding new leaves and blossom.  Time to prepare the fields. The land in northern Friesland are barren, but preparations are in full swing, tractors moved across the field just before the last storm to dispense manure, lots of it, to fertilize the fields for new rounds of potato and sugar beet crops. Not exactly romantic. It is the ‘rural smell’ I remember from childhood, but I have since learned that rural can smell very different. 

I do my best to remember other aroma’s, of rural regions where trees and flowering plants are not as curtailed or purposely eliminated. Where acacia’s provide a smell so pleasant, and a sparkling sight of dancing leaves and swinging flowers, faint yellow primroses start to colonize the forest floor providing daily new compositions. In contrast, the dominant and penetrating odor of manure I am now fully immersed in confuses the senses, almost makes me forget that things can be different, when aromatic rhythms allows our bodies to synchronize with seasonal changes. I feel deprived, my body needs different molecules in my aerial diet, just as I crave diverse organically grown, tasty vegetables, to nurture my being and those in and around me.   

The source of this manure is of course well known. The dairy and meat industry is prominent in the Netherlands, especially in this region and agriculture is considered the main emitter of methane in our atmosphere. Although climate change discussion often focus on carbon dioxide, methane is a must stronger greenhouse gas, despite being relatively short-lived. Per unit of mass, the impact of on climate change over 20 years is 86 times greater than carbon dioxide, over a 100 year period it is 28 time greater. Changing our current industrial agricultural practices could then have an enormous impact in years to come in addressing our climate challenge. 

Current agricultural practices are however  not the only methane culprit. Natural gas winning is another. Gas leakages from natural gas systems turns out to be much more polluting than previously thought. Given our reliance on oil and gas to fuel our modern societies this is not an easy topic to address, but it should be a major incentive to speed up the transition to renewable energy sources, as reducing methane emissions has increasingly been considered to more rapidly limit global warming this century. And not just to mitigate climate effects, but also to curb the damaging health effects impacting the living world, the collateral damage of our energy hunger. 

Methane is produced by breakdown or decay of organic material and thus released in the atmosphere by natural processes. Methane is considered non-toxic when inhaled in small doses, such as naturally occurring quantities, however if large quantities are allowed to displace air, it reduces the amount of oxygen in the air and can result in serious health conditions for living, breathing organisms. Known effects on humans include: mood changes, slurred speech, vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, and headache. In severe cases it can result in changes in breathing and heart rate, balance problems, numbness and unconsciousness. 

Although we have known the levels of methane emissions from agricultural practices for a long time, it turns out the levels released from oil and gas leaks have been highly underestimated. Recent studies show that the amount of methane leaked from oil and gas production is many times higher than previously thought. For instance, analysis of new aerial data suggest that oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin in New Mexico is about six times as much as the latest estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency. Other major leaks have recently been identified from data from Tropomi onboard the EU satellite Sentinel 5, in the United States, Russia, Central Asia, among others, indicating that this is a structural problem, that if addressed, can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially in the short-term. The resolution of this date is not fine enough to pinpoint exact location and multiple methods will be necessary to gain a clearer picture. In any case, we should speed up our efforts toward more sustainable and renewable energy sources if we wish to maintain a breathable planet. 

Returning once more to the fields in the northern Netherlands, the heavily ‘dunged’ agricultural fields at, and the gas fields deep below, the surface. A rural region with wide open views, wind and water, yet methane is the invisible player in our atmosphere and I can’t help but wonder how much methane is released in the air. The information is not easy to find, but an international investigation in 2018 showed that actual methane emissions in the northern Netherlands are also six times higher than previously estimated. Assumptions underpinning models to calculate such estimates across the industry turn out to be damagingly incorrect. 

I traverse the land, on foot, on my bike, wind an ever-present element in this region, the perfect source of energy to help us push through the the transition toward a new energy landscape. I breathe, but not sure how deep, manure, methane, ‘eating up’ essential elements of a healthy composition. Longing for spring flowers with their sweet smell, I hope we collectively come to our senses.